WITH seemingly endless information now at our fingertips, there is a fierce debate underway over the extent to which governments and publicly-owned institutions should and are providing free and open access to their data and information.

Proponents say that open data models support economic development, improve decision- making, and increase government transparency. Free access to this information is also enabling entrepreneurs to develop new products, and is encouraging innovation in science.

As largely state-owned enterprises, railways are under scrutiny for the extent to which they provide open access to their data. Numerous railways have embraced the potential opportunities on offer. British infrastructure manager Network Rail, for example, provides free access to 10 separate data feeds. Amtrak and Via Rail Canada similarly offer various datasets for use by third parties.

Many European railways provide similar information. However, there is some resistance, especially when sharing information could provide a boost to potential competitors.

This is proving to be the case in railway ticketing. State-owned operators and railways are often the largest railway ticketing retailer within their respective territories. A perceived reluctance to share information with third-party providers has led to accusations that railways and operators are hampering open-market competition and breaching the European Union (EU) competition laws.

Spain’s Renfe is one such state-owned operator that has been scrutinised over a reported refusal to provide rival ticketing platforms with comprehensive information and real-time data on its services. The European Commission (EC) launched an investigation in April 2023, confirming in January that Renfe had agreed to grant these vendors full access to its data by the end of last month.

“This decisive action from the EC sets an important precedent for rail across Europe,” says Trainline CEO, Mr Jody Ford. “It represents the latest in welcome moves by competition authorities across the continent to drive competition into this market.”

The Alliance of Passenger Rail New Entrants (AllRail), which represents Europe’s independent passenger rail companies, also welcomed the announcement. Among the advantages that it says third-party ticketing providers offer are innovative digital solutions that enable consumers to easily compare and book public transport, both nationally and cross-border; and a willingness to offer tickets for journeys using a combination of different operators, increasing overall transport options.

Inevitably, many of these alternative operators are AllRail members, which are competing with the incumbent railways. The visibility of these companies’ services on booking platforms is essential to their success and is another bone of contention in the debate over ticketing in Europe.

There is a general recognition that existing booking and distribution platforms are not meeting passenger needs, particularly when it comes to booking cross-border journeys. The existing Price and Fare Information Storage (PRIFIS) international tariffs distribution tool has become technologically obsolete.

Members of the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Companies (CER) have endorsed the Open Sales and Distribution Model (OSDM) as an update to PRIFIS. Developed by the International Union of Railways (UIC), the proposed standard aims to simplify the booking process for passengers and reduce complexity and costs for distributors and carriers.

CER’s Ticketing Roadmap, published in October 2021, aims to provide a seamless user experience by offering access to simple, reliable and comprehensive online and real-time information on timetables and the tickets available for all domestic and international rail journeys, including urban and regional services. It says this will be achieved by “harmonised, sector-driven technical solutions.”

However, there is unease about whether OSDM is the correct model to deliver this.

In a letter to the heads of CER, UIC, European Passenger Transport Operators (EPTO) and the International Rail Transport Committee (CIT), seen by IRJ, the director-general of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport at the EC, Ms Magda Kopczynska, says the EC is concerned about elements of OSDM that “have the potential to restrict sharing relevant fare and timetable information with distributors and thus passengers” or allow “non-transparent pre-aggregation of information or purchasable tickets by the railway undertakings.”

“Technical or functional requirements as proposed in OSDM must not allow for pre-setting automatic functions that restrict information about rail tickets or their purchase to the detriment of commercial parties or passenger choice, such as selecting slower but cheaper trains,” Kopczynska writes.

She says the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) will also develop proposals and that the EC will mandate the use of European standards for ticketing. AllRail supports this assessment. It favours a standard based on Transmodel/NeTEx, an existing CEN technical standard for exchanging public transport network schedules and related data.

CER director general, Mr Alberto Mazzola, says that OSDM is better suited to long-distance railways than NeTEx, which he says is more applicable to urban transit, where the number of fares is limited and there is no pre-booking. He also points to the successful rollout of OSDM in Sweden and is hopeful that more countries will follow.

OSDM might still emerge as the standard of choice, but it is clear the issues the EC highlights must be ironed out. After all, operators should be judged on the standard of their service, not on whether their tickets are visible on a ticketing platform.

Indeed, in line with open data principles, prospective passengers must have all available journey options presented to them preferably in a simple to use format. Reports that Trainline favours only independent ticket vendors showing all fares and available connections in Europe are disappointing. This contrasts with the situation in Britain where Trainline has become the leading ticketing vendor in the market despite the fact it charges an administration fee and there is no discrepancy in offer between it and other vendors. A similar approach should be employed to pan-European railway ticketing.

As Kopczynska states: “our joint effort under the European Green Deal and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy is to increase the uptake of rail transport. This goal should not be obstructed by fare access restrictions that follow short-term commercial strategies in the rail sector.” Hear, hear.